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Editorial: Prescription Drug Safety Act Must Be Renewed

Tennessee appears to be making headway in fighting prescription drug abuse, but a key law that helps combat opioid abuse will need to be renewed next year.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Tennessee has seen dramatic declines over the past two years in the number of teenagers and young adults abusing prescription painkillers — 25 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

The state's death rate from prescription drug overdoses, however, remains startlingly high — 12th among states.

Both the good news and the bad point to the need for the state Legislature to renew the Prescription Drug Safety Act of 2012, which is set to expire in June. The law more closely tracks the prescribing of painkillers and tranquilizers to make them less accessible for abuse.

Douglas Varney, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, credits the law for the lower abuse rates.

"We still have a significant problem in Tennessee," Varney said earlier this month. "And even with impressive data like this, there are many teenagers abusing illicit drugs for recreation or as a way of self-managing an underlying mental health issue or major depression."

Varney also cites the work of state-funded coalitions working on the problem across Tennessee. In January, those coalitions will participate in National Drug Facts Week, during which schools across the state will hold drug awareness programs and activities.

Prescription painkiller abuse costs Tennesseans dearly in terms of lives lost, families shattered and money spent on treatment.

According to state figures, at least 1,263 Tennesseans died in 2014 from opioid overdoses, 133 of them in Knox County. Another 94 overdose deaths occurred in Anderson, Blount, Loudon, Roane and Sevier counties. Over the past decade, the state's rate of babies born addicted to drugs has increased tenfold; East Tennessee has the highest rate in the state. In fiscal year 2011, TennCare paid $78 million in claims for people with drug-related diagnoses — 20 percent higher than in 2010.

Measures enacted by the state Legislature have only just begun to have an effect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives Tennessee its highest grade for laws that require greater monitoring of painkiller prescriptions and oversight of pain clinics. Not renewing the Prescription Drug Safety Act would be a step backward.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said recently the law's renewal would be a priority and that other bills will be introduced to curb prescription drug abuse. Lawmakers and other stakeholders are mulling placing dosage limits on emergency room visits, state registries for drug offenders and other policies. Retired Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols is a member of a panel making recommendations to members of the Legislature.

New laws should ensure that patients who need pain medications receive them, but the prescription drug epidemic requires a vigorous response. Legislators must answer the bell.

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